Can the mutability of DNA be selected for in a population? I don’t mean selection for the phenotype that is the result of a mutation. Rather, can the rate of mutations in a population be increased by natural selection?

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    $\begingroup$ You might be interested in this question and answer. $\endgroup$
    – canadianer
    Commented Nov 12, 2017 at 8:16
  • $\begingroup$ The short answer is yes. There is quite a bit of work, theory and empirical on the evolution of mutation rate. To nicely answer, one would need to make a good review, probably inspired by some existing review. Such answer would take some time but I think is worth it. $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Commented Nov 13, 2017 at 16:59
  • $\begingroup$ You may like this reference. It clearly makes the case for the selection of an "ideal" mutation rate in the HIV virus. $\endgroup$
    – alec_djinn
    Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 15:39

2 Answers 2



Evolutionary success of bacteria relies on the constant fine-tuning of their mutation rates, which optimizes their adaptability to constantly changing environmental conditions. When adaptation is limited by the mutation supply rate, under some conditions, natural selection favours increased mutation rates by acting on allelic variation of the genetic systems that control fidelity of DNA replication and repair. Mutator alleles are carried to high frequency through hitchhiking with the adaptive mutations they generate. However, when fitness gain no longer counterbalances the fitness loss due to continuous generation of deleterious mutations, natural selection favours reduction of mutation rates. Selection and counter-selection of high mutation rates depends on many factors: the number of mutations required for adaptation, the strength of mutator alleles, bacterial population size, competition with other strains, migration, and spatial and temporal environmental heterogeneity. Such modulations of mutation rates may also play a role in the evolution of antibiotic resistance.


Large differences in mutation rates can be found among viruses: 10^-3 mutations per nucleotide per replication in RNA bacteriophage Qβ versus 10^-8 mutations per nucleotide per replication in DNA Herpes simplex virus. Generally, RNA viruses have higher mutation rate because RNA-dependent RNA polymerases lack the proof-reading capacity present in DNA polymerases. However, both increasing and decreasing these typical mutation rates leads to reduced virulence of the virus population.




The answer is yes and your nice question was answered several decades ago by Luria and Delbruck. Take few minutes to read their experiment that gives them the Nobel prize:


  • $\begingroup$ I think the OP is not asking about wether the trait "mutation rate" is affected by selection on the mutation rate and not whether mutations appear as a response to a selection pressure for a given trait. I understood the question as you did at first (and got four downvotes in a few hours!) and ended up deleting my answer. $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Commented Nov 13, 2017 at 22:28
  • $\begingroup$ Well partially I think that can be answered by their experiment. This because in their experiment they show that bacteria have already all the possible mutations that can be "selected" in a particular environment. The selection of a mutation can happen randomly or as evolutionary biologist think it is selected by "natural selection". But what is natural selection? Are there specific mechanisms that can explain natural selection? I think this is still an open question nowadays. Please tell me what you think am open for this discussion :) $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 13, 2017 at 22:36

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